Excerpted from The Blue Box (out today from Red Hen Press)
It was a red boat and it attacked people at Lonely Lake. People would be swimming in the alcoves of the lake, and the boat would attack. It ran over people anytime it wanted to. If there was a waterskier and he fell down into the water of Lonely Lake or there was a woman waterskier who fell, the red boat would run over them, and its propeller would chop them up until they were hard to look at, and their stories were hard to hear. If there was a fisherman just wading in the shallow parts of Lonely Lake, the boat would attack. It would go by as if just boating and then it would attack the fisherman. It attacked boats sometimes and ran into them and cut them in half, and when the people spilled into the water of Lonely Lake, the red boat would turn in determined circles until it had run over all of the people even if they were screaming for help. If they were calling, the boat still ran over them. It attacked at night or in the daytime. In the evening people listened. It was scary at night on Lonely Lake, but the days were just as dangerous. It attacked canoes and rowboats and it attacked the old scout troop in their inner tubes. The red boat was the worst thing about Lonely Lake. If someone mentioned Lonely Lake, then someone also said red boat.
Once a year the search party went out to try to find the red boat and destroy it so it would stop attacking people in Lonely Lake. It was always a methodical search and went around the whole lake, from the earthen dam at the north end all the way to the swampy sloughs at the south end. They looked into all the boat houses, private ones and the big club boathouse and they looked into the abandoned boathouses and under the old Sycamore Bridge, which is also abandoned. They searched under the great willow shelf on the west side and the sandy beaches on the east side. They always found a lot of lost gear and some dinghies which had floated off and canoes, but they never found the red boat which attacked people on Lonely Lake.
We tried to figure out why it was attacking. We had a town meeting in the lodge at Lonely Lake, and Mr. Blister stood at the blackboard and printed out the reasons.
Mrs. Abletable stood and said, “The boat attacks because it is evil.” In the lighted lodge under the great stuffed moose, this made sense and everyone in the room nodded and agreed, and we made a sound together of agreement.
Mr. Blister wrote “EVIL.”
Mr. Bakertaker raised his hand and said, “Maybe it is the Devil’s Boat.” That really hit a chord of agreement in the room, and we all spoke to each other and said That is so true. I agree, and like that, and Mr. Blister wrote “Devil’s Boat” on the blackboard.
It was the blackboard from the Mercantile which occupies the front of the Lonely Lake Lodge and it usually had the produce specials on it in Mr. Blister’s loopy printing. We all liked his printing. You could trust it.
Then Mrs. Candlewandle said, “I think that boat is out for revenge. It attacks everything because of something that happened a long time ago. That’s the way these things work. Something terrible happened in the long lost history of Lonely Lake, and that red boat continues to seek its revenge.” The logic of this comment made us gasp.
Mr. Blister wrote on the board: “Revenge.”
Mr. Dordlenordle stood up and said, “I think the boat isn’t the Devil’s Boat, but some lesser demon here to terrify Lonely Lake. I think the devil himself is too busy for an old small place like this.” The reasoning here was outstanding, and we all hummed approval.
Mr. Blister wrote down “Demon” on the board. The meeting was just getting started, and there was a sense of accomplishment already. You get a man in the clean well-lighted lodge writing on the blackboard in big letters, and it feels like you’re finally getting somewhere. In an hour the blackboard was full of ideas, good ideas, including some scientific theories which included physics and chemistry.
We had refreshments of cool punch and oatmeal cookies and talked until almost ten o’clock. It was the whole town, everybody taking a turn, Mrs. Hindlebindle and Mr. Markennarken and Mr. Stoppermopper and Mrs. Vankerlanker, and I mean everybody with their stupid names and their passionate theories and all of us humming our agreement after every ardent remark until you could see it in every eye in the old room, hatred, and the deep dark hope that the red boat would find Mr. OckleFockle and Mrs. FerdyHerty, any of these people, and chop them into little bloody wicklenickles. Our esteem for the red boat was gigantic.
Finally, Mr. Zarcolnarcol raised his hand. He stood up and said to us all, “I think the red boat is attacking people in Lonely Lake because we need it to. We’ve made up this story about this horrible red boat driven by the devil. . . .”
“Or demons,” Mr. Dordlenordle said.
“Or demons,” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said. “And we have to have this legend or Lonely Lake would dry up and allow Walmart to come in here and put in that Supercenter they’ve been talking about for twenty five years.”
It was hard to tell when he sat down if there was agreement or not, because the entire lodge was silent for the first time in four hours.
He stood up again. “For example,” he went on. “Has anyone seen any of the attacks?”
“I heard there was an attack yesterday at rocky pinion,” someone said.
“I did too,” someone added. “Some kid on a float board was cut all to ribbons. He looked like a pink slinky.”
“And there was blood everywhere,” someone else called out. “All the way to the old bridge.”
People weren’t standing and waiting to be identified now; they were just calling out.
“And it killed sixteen people in that church group of Goomberg,” someone else called. “The red boat cut their houseboat in two and chewed them all up one by one.”
“Presbyterians, someone said.
“The youth group,” someone else added. “And part of the choir. I heard it was a retreat.”
“Did you see it, any of the bodies or the ambulance?” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said.
“I heard they had trouble putting the bodies back together,” someone said. “Legs and arms.”
“It’s the devil’s boat!” Mr. Bakertaker said again, but now he almost screamed.
“There’s no red boat,” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said. “It’s just Lonely Lake. It’s always been Lonely Lake. Sometimes the wind blows from Forlorn Pass, and you can smell the pine forest there and in the evening if the clouds are low, the light turns pink reflected off Mount Lost and Lonely Lake glows too, the water so purple it seems like wine. And in the middle of the summer, like tonight, if you go to gold beach where the sandbar reaches out you can walk into the water so that your ankles tingle. Wade in. You will hear the steady motor of the cicadas. You will feel the memory of winter ice, and you will feel the melting snow of yesteryear, and the blood in your body will go down into your legs almost on a dare to feel the chill, the purple glowing chill of Lonely Lake.”
Ron Carlson is the author of five story collections and five novels, including Return to Oakpine and The Signal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, GQ, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His book of poems, Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries, & Remarks, was published by Red Hen Press in 2012. His book on writing, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, is taught widely. He is the director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and lives in Huntington Beach, California.